Exporting trouble. Products banned in US often resurface abroad

The Export of Hazard: Transnational Corporations and Environmental Control Issues, edited by Jane H. Ives. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 229 pp. $19.95. As Ralph Nader points out in the foreword to this collection of essays, when hazardous products are banned or severely restricted in the industrialized countries, they often end up in less developed nations, where obtaining more food, exports, and jobs seems more important than safety controls.

Not only does this tendency lead to environmental and health problems for these countries later on, but developed nations may also be affected. Nader says, ``Pesticides which for safety reasons cannot be sold in the country of production can be sold to other nations. The pesticides return to their country of origin with the imported food or drink like the coffee bean.''

In the lead essay, Susan B. King explores what has been done to regulate the flow of hazardous products and what is needed. She explains that a working group set up by the Carter administration developed a policy of providing importing countries with complete information on the hazard and the US restrictions on the product's sale or use. This left the country with the option of accepting or rejecting the products. Signed as an executive order by President Carter on Jan. 14, 1981, it was rescinded by President Reagan on Feb. 17 of the same year as part of his efforts to eliminate excessive government regulation.

The book makes clear, however, that the problem of hazardous exports involves much more than just the United States. Companies in Great Britain, Japan, West Germany, and Switzerland are among those reported as engaging in such activities.

Says Jane H. Ives in the final essay, ``Exports to the developing world of pesticides, pharmaceutical products, processed food, medical devices, infant formulas, and other consumer products are not, in and of themselves, the problem. Abuses, exploitation of uninformed consumers, and the double standard that says products considered unsafe for use in the industrialized world may be promoted and sold freely in the developing nations -- these are the issues.''

The writers, who include Nicholas A. Ashford, Barry I. Castleman, Clara Barbara, Ruth Ruttenberg, David Michaels, and Charles Levenstein, among others, also explain that even a US refusal to export potentially hazardous products would not necessarily eliminate the problem.

In some cases, companies in other nations have simply moved into the gap left by the US withdrawal. In others, US plants overseas have continued to produce forbidden products outside of US restrictions. This is why the solution the writers are looking for is a global one. One possibility they mention is for nations to share information about hazardous products through the World Health Organization or some other agency.

The case studies they offer include examples from Ireland, Malaysia, Central and Latin America, Mexico, South Africa, and Asia. An excellent and detailed appendix provides a bibliography on the export of hazardous US products. There is also one on the disastrous leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Its stated purpose is to show the double standard in plant structure, maintenance, and so forth, by comparing the Bhopal plant with one doing similar work in Institute, W. Va.

Some of the case studies are more physically and medically graphic than others. But the segments are not presented in a sensational way. In fact, the book is careful to avoid extremism and impracticality. While it raises volatile issues, it remains solution-oriented in approach.

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